The focus of this blog is construction-related topics. The purpose is discussion, so please feel free to comment! See Specific thoughts for thoughts from the daily life of a specifier.

23 November 2015

Tell me again - and show me the money!

In the last few articles we looked at how redundancies needlessly increase the size of specifications. Another thing that affects the length of specifications is writing style. Even though CSI's mantra, "Clear, concise, correct, complete", suggests specifications should contain only the essence of requirements, commercial guide specifications and office master specifications alike tend to use words that aren't necessary.

In 1949, Ben John Small wrote an article titled "The Case for the Streamlined Specification." In it, he uses anecdote and logic to explain why terse writing is superior to verbose. He also cites previous works that show that streamlined writing is nothing new, but has been advocated as far back as 1896.

In his opening remarks, Small said, "Streamlining is not and never has been considered a panacea or short cut in the writing of good specifications. If one can write a thorough and competent specification using the long form one can streamline that same specification without the slightest adulteration, yet reduce its bulk by one-third or more." Briefly, streamlining is the removal of all words that are not essential to understanding the specifications.

Small used this quotation to show an impressive extreme of verbosity:
"The Owner shall not nor shall any department or officer thereof be precluded or estopped by any return or certificate made or given by the Board, the Engineer or other officer, agent or appointee thereof under any provision of this contract from at any time either before or after the final completion and acceptance of the work and payment therefor pursuant to any such return or certificate, showing the true and correct classification; amount, quality and character of the work done and materials furnished by the Contractor or any other person under this contract or the reasonable value of work done under ITEM XXX of this contract or from showing at any time that any such return or certificate is untrue and incorrect or improperly made in any particular or that the work and materials or any part thereof do not in fact conform to the requirements of this contract; and the Owner shall not be precluded or estopped, notwithstanding any such return or certificate and payment in accordance therewith, from demanding and recovering from the Contractor such damages as it may sustain by reason of his failure to comply with this contract or the specifications."
That's a single sentence with 196 words! Small goes on to say, "Opposition lawyers love obese specifications for there are bound to be many loopholes in the avoirdupois."

One of the first steps in streamlining is to use imperative mode, rather than indicative mode. While your English teacher might be impressed to hear you use those terms, they're not in everyone's vocabulary. In everyday language, this means use verbs to begin sentences, as if you're talking to someone. If you were talking to a contractor, you wouldn't say "The Contractor shall paint the bollard" and you wouldn't say "You shall paint the bollard." Instead, you would say, "Paint the bollard."

Next, eliminate articles, such as "a", "all", "an", "any", and "the". Your Division 01 states that words such as "approved", "directed", and similar actions are assumed to be performed by the architect unless followed by some other entity, so they can be omitted.

With these few rules, Small shows how specifications can be simplified without losing their intent.

He follows with this amusing summary of the changes.
Chatterbox Hospital Specification Surgery Department Laboratory Report No. 11/8.

1.    Patient: Case "X"

2.    Weight (before operation): 485 words

3.    Weight (after operation): 251 words

4.    Net Loss: 234 words
At each step in the streamlining process, it's common to hear, "So what? If the meaning is the same, what difference does it make how it's stated?" As it happens, it makes a big difference.

The obvious difference is one of length. Following the above rules, and, at the same time, correctly addressing the contractor rather than a subcontractor, "The painter shall apply paint to the bollard" becomes "Paint the bollard", reducing the length from eight words to three.

The shorter text means the specifications can be read more quickly, and the simpler sentences mean they will be easier to understand. I believe they also will be more likely to be read. I'm sure you've seen a variety of expressions when you ask someone to review a project manual: bewilderment, dread, disbelief, and hate come to mind. You probably have not seen joy, thankfulness, or excitement. You never will, but if the project manual is half an inch instead of two inches thick, it's more likely you'll get useful responses.

The bottom line is the driving factor in virtually everything related to construction. We try to save money on materials, installation, storage, transportation, and more, but we seem to have no concern about the cost of poorly written or poorly drawn documents.

A number of studies have shown that documents that are easy to understand do affect cost. An oft-cited Navy study showed that changing from bureaucratic style to plain language reduced reading time by about twenty percent, at the same time increasing comprehension. If only officers read documents in plain language, the savings were calculated to be about $30,000,000. If all Navy personnel used plain language documents, the savings were projected to be $300,000,000.

Removing redundancies and streamlining not only make them easier to read, they make them easier to understand. The result? Fewer mistakes, fewer questions, more accurate bids, and lower cost.


The Case for the Streamlined Specification, the Construction Specifier.

Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please,

Tell me again part 1

Tell me again part 2

Tell me again part 3

Haystacks: Do construction documents do what they're supposed to do?


  1. CSI presents the "Ben John Small Award for Specification Writing" annually to a CSI Member who has attained special proficiency and outstanding stature as a specifications writer. Thanks for showing us why this award was aptly named.

    1. The amazing thing is, after being shown the way more than sixty years ago, today's specifications are more obese than ever before.

  2. One of the most beautiful, elegant, memorable and useful sentences in the English language is from Strunk & White's 'Elements of Style:'

    Omit needless words.